what happened to the pentecostal evangel?


On just about any given welcome center in any given lobby of any given Assemblies of God church in America, one will find a copy of the Pentecostal Evangel. 

The Evangel, the “official weekly publication of the Assemblies of God”, actually predates it: in 1913, a year prior to the formation of the fellowship in Hot Springs, Arkansas, J. Roswell Flower and his wife, Alice, started the Christian Evangel, a modest newsletter, not unlike the Los Angeles-based Azusa Street revival’s The Apostolic Faith or any number of other charismatic publications of the era, sharing dispatches from Pentecostal revivals nationwide and global missionary efforts. It would become, in time, a fully-fledged magazine featuring various AG ministries, missions, fellowship colleges, prominent ministers and outright proselytization: the Evangel‘s website notes over 28,000 Christian conversions as a result of reading the magazine since 1997.

Indeed, a history of the Assemblies of God is, more or less, a history of the Pentecostal Evangel. That is, until the end of this year: after 101 years of publication, the periodical-of-record for the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world is stopping its Springfield, Missouri presses.

Not that anyone seems to know this yet. Aside from a blip on the social media radar from a minister in flyover country, there has been no official word from either the Evangel‘s staff or its adoptive church parent.

***

Ten years ago, I toured the General Council headquarters of the Assemblies of God. The tour featured a stop in the then-new Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a truly impressive historical repository of Pentecostal paraphernalia, documents, media and even a room fashioned as a crude one-room frontier church house the likes of which would have been packed in another era to hear the likes of EN Bell or Flower or any number of other firebrand, itinerant preachers.

The rest of the tour featured brief stops the executive offices, an extensive look through the world missions department and the remaining time was spent touring the printing and production facilities for the Pentecostal Evangel. This was not just a magazine; this was a concerted effort toward eschatological fulfillment, toward the Blessed Hope, presenting the gospel to every nation, tongue and tribe, while keeping the rank-and-file aware of efforts the movement was undertaking for the faith.

***

It would seem audacious for one Gemini twin to destroy the other, particularly in the year of the Assemblies’ centennial (for which an entire issue of the Evangel was justifiably published.) It would also seem perverse that Pollax would let Castor die. All the pomp and circumstance of the centennial is inversely proportional to the Evangel‘s expiration.

And expiration is exactly what it is.

The Evangel has never been a publication necessarily reliant upon time sensitivity: for example, the issue following September 11, 2001 featured former Toronto Blue Jay (and underrated utility infielder) Tony Fernandez and was published on the 16th. 9/11 was not addressed until the October 28 issue, six weeks after the attacks. (Two points need to be made here: 1) in the interest of fairness, my own collegiate newspaper was monthly, and the publication date was September 10; and 2) the accounts and leadership’s response in the Evangel‘s 9/11 issue are both compelling and salient, despite an unfortunately-worded cover.) Flower’s Christian Evangel was more-or-less a bulletin board of national and global highlights of ‘Latter Rain’ revival, and the compilation of notes and dispatches from missions efforts worldwide takes time.

Of course, none of this is not an indictment against the magazine or the movement: print media simply were not geared to work in real-time, as proven by the almost universally sluggish, almost only-because-I-had-to pivot newspapers and other print outlets made at the advent of the digital age. (Newsweek, Sport, BusinessWeek, we hardly knew ye.) When there is potential dissonance between features, thematics, effective public relations and news, tough editorial decisions need to be made. At the Evangel, they made a decision to emphasize theme. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that.

…at least there’s nothing wrong with that not until an outlet reaches the end of the line. What theme can be presented at the curtain call that isn’t, in essence, fashioning one’s own gallows right now?

To form, and as mentioned above, no announcement has been made. Given the apparent publication cycle, there will likely be a meek announcement about a month beforehand and then the magazine will end, with no one to eulogize one of the, if not the, final link(s) between the fellowship’s modest beginnings and the present, much less protest the decision.

It is fair to ask if anyone would bother.

***

American Christians are nothing if they are not numbers-driven. Even those who say they aren’t are by virtue of standing in opposition, much like a-theism. (Or op-position.)

Print media has been derisively called dead tree, fish wrap or canary cage liner for a very long time. (Personally, I’m still a fan of print, but I digress.) Newspapers and periodicals had to pivot into the digital age in order to survive because of the nascent democratizing effect of the interwebs on society. “Print advertising revenue is now just 45% of what it was in 2006,” according to Pew Research, and that’s roughly a decade into the new era. People aren’t buying paper and they’re certainly not reading from paper. As a result, newspapers and magazines around the country are either closing up shop, disappearing into the digital ether or getting bought out by media conglomerates, only to be spun off into independent entities. One could probably guess that, like many others in print media, the cost/benefit analysis wasn’t in the magazine’s favor, which seems like a remarkably cold way to kill a sibling.

When I asked several A/G ministers and laypeople around the country in recent weeks if they were aware of what was happening to the Pentecostal Evangel, all of them assumed the magazine was just ending its print run and transitioning to digital.

All of them were surprised when I said that it wasn’t. No one may read the Evangel, but they certainly know it’s there.

***

The Assemblies of God’s other official voice, Revivaltime, went off the radio airwaves 20 years ago, in 1994. The once-proud flagship school for ministry, Central Bible College, was merged into Evangel University, the A/G liberal arts institution (and noted Springfield party school) beginning with this fall semester. The Pentecostal Evangel is shutting down at the end of the year. For a denomination which has “experienced 24 consecutive years of growth in adherents”, these are not, at least on the face of it, decisions which reflect robust, holistic improvement as an organization or religious movement. Actions speak louder than press kits.

Yes, Revivaltime was a relic from a bygone era. The A/G tried a different radio program, but it never resonated the way CM Ward or Dan Betzer did and summarily disappeared. CBC existed for decades under rumors of significant financial problems and was not accredited by the Higher Learning Commission until 2005, fully 83 years after opening its Springfield doors. In hearing the plans to integrate CBC staff into Evangel over two years ago from contacts within the EU community, it was clear to see that the move could potentially create a vacuum within the faculty community there. In contrast, and to its credit, the Evangel did well to reinvent itself through the years, even if it neglected to make a strong enough play early in the digital age to position itself for survival. Regardless, all of them are now history.

If the history of the Assemblies of God is a history of the Pentecostal Evangel, what happens when the Evangel stops its presses at the end of the year? Who will act as the voice of the movement? What will take its place? These are not unfair questions that warrant being asked; ultimately, readers, licensed ministers and concerned adherents alike are all being kept from asking anything.

When reached for comment, sources close to national leadership and around General Council headquarters politely declined to comment for this piece.

If one is completely honest, one might get the sense they may not have an answer, either. And they may well be the most frustrated of all.

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